A Wetu Commemorates Indigenous People

Indigenous people inhabited Cape Ann for some twelve millennia before the arrival of Europeans. Primarily they summered feasting on fish and clams then migrated north and inland during the winter season. 

There is an abundance of archaeological evidence with a display of ancient artifacts at the Cape Ann Museum. At Wheeler’s Point the ancient site Poles Hill was used for astronomical calculations similar to those of England’s Stonehenge.

When the French explorer Samuel de Champlain made his second trip to Cape Ann in 1606, he encountered some 200 Indigenous people. He drew a map of Gloucester harbor then called le Beau port which he later published. Eight years later, the English Captain John Smith named the peninsula Cape Tragabigzanda after a woman he met in Turkey. Later, England’s King Charles I renamed it Cape Ann in honor of his mother Queen Anne.  

By 1617, the colonists had infected and killed three-quarters of the Indigenous population in Massachusetts by diseases brought from Europe.

By 1623 The Dorchester Company sent three ships from England and started a settlement along the coast. The name of the settlement was changed from Le Beau port to Gloucester.  A group of colonists from the Plymouth Colony also sailed to Gloucester and built the first racks for drying fish.

 The General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony incorporated the Town of Gloucester in 1642, and the Governor of Salem began distributing land titles. The Reverend Richard Blynman was the town’s first clergyman.

 Blyman transformed the peninsula to an island by creating a channel excavating a narrow passage connecting the harbor and Annisquam River. It is now the site of the Cut Bridge between Gloucester’s Causeway and Magnolia.

 The Town Green, established where Grant Circle is today, was the site of the first meeting house and a number of residences. One of these homes, the White-Ellery House (1710), now owned by the Cape Ann Museum, has survived and is located on Washington Street, not far from where it originally stood. The museum has also erected a multi-functional structure for storage, library, research, education and special exhibitions.

 In collaboration with the Mashpee Wampanoag people the museum has constructed a symbolic wetu structure. Intended to be on view on the museum’s green through 2025 it will be the focus for ceremonial events.

 It has been created by the Wampanoag curatorial firm SmokeSygnals, with support from the local partners. We were on site May 6 when the traditional structure was created. It is part of “Native Waters; Native Lands” intended to “highlight how Native communities live, travel, and fish in this region both historically and today.”

 From the parking lot next to the museum’s new structure we crossed the green toward three dwellings from the 17th century. They abut Grant Circle which is the terminus of Route 128 connecting Gloucester to the mainland via the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge.

 We observed a structure of curving poles lashed together to create a domed dwelling. For now we just see the skeletal frame which will be enclosed at a later time.

 SmokeSygnals plans to create a mushoon (a traditional wooden dugout canoe) at Gloucester’s Stage Fort Park for “A Celebration of Place: The Cultural Heritage Festival” presented by the Gloucester 400+ Anniversary Committee on Oct. 7 and 8, 2023. Following the festival, the boat and wetu will be displayed together at the Cape Ann Museum Green through 2025.

 Next year the museum hopes to work with SmokeSygnals and an indigenous artist, who will create “a contemporary artwork skin covering for the piece.”

Finishing the job we encountered one of the workers with SmokeSygnals.

 He explained that the cedar poles has been recently harvested and stripped of bark. Once embedded in a circle they were readily bent into shape. We asked if there is still a presence of the original Pawtucket nation.

 “They have gone silent” was his sobering response, which is not the case for his own people.

 The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, also known as the People of the First Light, has inhabited present day Massachusetts and Eastern Rhode Island for more than 12,000 years. After an arduous process lasting more than three decades, the Mashpee Wampanoag were re-acknowledged as a federally recognized tribe in 2007. In 2015, the federal government declared 150 acres of land in Mashpee and 170 acres of land in Taunton as the Tribe’s initial reservation, on which the Tribe can exercise its full tribal sovereignty rights. The Mashpee tribe currently has approximately 2,600 enrolled citizens.

 The occasion of the 400th of Gloucester has evoked dialogue about the reprehensible aspects of its history. There is much to learn of the prehistory of European settlement as well as the legacy of the slave trade.
Participants and sponsors of the 400th are to be commended for due diligence in casting light on dark chapters of its history.

Campus of three 17th century dwellings

A long view

Member of Wampanoag curatorial team

Samuel de Champlain

Champlain's Map

Legend of Champlain's map

Champlain map signage

Pawtucket artifacts in CAM

Ancient objects

Site of Poles Hill

First boulder in celestial circle

Solstice stones long view

Statement from Cape Ann Museum

The map from “Les Voyages” in the Cape Ann Gallery is an especially noteworthy document in CAM’s historical collection. Drawn from the explorations of Samuel de Champlain in 1604 and 1606, it is one of the earliest renderings of Gloucester harbor, “le Beau port.”

The Champlain map illustrates recognizable features of the local landscape, such as Rocky Neck, Eastern Point and Ten Pound Island. On closer examination, it also reveals something else quite significant – the extent of Native American settlements along our shores. The map depicts dwellings, planted crops and managed woodlots. Who were these Indigenous people, and what kind of lives did they lead? Much of their story has been lost to history, but recent scholarship by local historians such as Mary Ellen Lepionka, along with the collection of artifacts and archival documents at the Museum, is helping uncover a fuller picture of this thriving community.

At the time of the Champlain encounters, the native people were the Pawtucket, part of the Algonquian-speaking confederacies of the Northeast. The Pawtucket were recent migrants into Essex County and were descendants of Algonquian-speaking people who lived in New England from around 3,000 years ago. Evidence of their presence can be found throughout Cape Ann. Ancient shell piles or “middens” on the shores of the Essex River and the Annisquam River mark the sites of summer encampments visited over centuries. The Pawtucket had a village in Riverview, Gloucester, and a surviving rock formation on Poles Hill served as a solar observatory, with boulders aligned to mark astronomical events such as the summer and winter solstices. The Museum’s collection of pottery sherds, arrowheads, fishhooks, woodworking tools, and agricultural tools provide a glimpse of everyday life.

The language and customs of the Pawtucket were little understood by Champlain and his men, leading to misunderstanding and potential conflict. In a fascinating detail, the Champlain map portrays an example of one such misunderstanding, a presumed “ambush” by the Pawtucket on Champlain’s party at Rocky Neck. A close look shows the French raising the alarm while the Pawtucket dance in a circle on the beach at Smith’s Cove. (According to Champlain’s account, he is one of the men shown, along with his second in command, Poitrincourt, and the captain of his marines, raising the alarm.)

By the early 17th century, the Pawtucket were living alongside English settlers. Fearing raids by the Tarrantines, enemies from the North, the Pawtucket welcomed the protection of the new settlers (the “Tarrantines” were the Micmac, Passamoquoddy, Maliseet, and sometimes Penobscot). Masconomet, the hereditary leader or “sagamore” sold his farm in Ipswich and other Pawtucket homelands to John Winthrop, Jr. Earlier, in 1629, Masconomet had rented cropland on Cape Ann to John Endicott, governor of the New England Company at Beverly-Salem.

Over time, native populations in coastal New England were ravaged by European diseases and greatly diminished in number. During the 1670s, the tranquil coexistence of the Pawtucket and the English came to an end following a disastrous Wampanoag war against the English in which the Pawtucket had tried to remain neutral. The native people in Essex County fled to northern New Hampshire and Vermont or to Canada, or were confined to reservations on the frontiers, or were forced into involuntary servitude in the towns. Gradually, their history, the memory of them, and their role in shaping the American nation were largely erased. The Cape Ann Museum presents and celebrates the people, history, art and culture of this special region. As the Museum prepares for its 150th anniversary, and Gloucester its 400th anniversary of the first European settlement on Cape Ann, the story of this area’s Indigenous people needs to be further explored and told anew. With its collection, programs and scholarship, the Museum is well poised to play a role in this important initiative.

— Ed Becker, CAM Docent, with special thanks to Mary Ellen Lepionka, author and